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Take Action: Submit Your Comments on PA’s Consolidated ESSA Plan

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By Esther L. Bush and James Fogarty

Right now, a sea change is happening in our public schools, and you need to get involved. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) requires state education agencies, districts and schools to engage the community to solicit meaningful feedback on plans to improve schools. As federal law moves to create greater local control of schools, we all need to take some time to review and comment on the State’s Consolidated Plan at http://www.education.pa.gov/K-12/ESSA/Pages/Review-the-Proposed-Plan.aspx

Here’s why.

We know that every student has not been succeeding in Pennsylvania:

  • Only 36% of Black students performed at proficient or advanced on state reading exams compared with 70% of white students in 2015.
  • Low income students performed 18 points below their peers on reading assessments in 2015.
  • The graduation rate in 2015 for white students in PA was 89.3% compared to 71.8% for African American Students and 62.6% for English Language Learners.

So how will Pennsylvania support schools to be places where all students are ready for this challenge? The Pennsylvania Consolidated State Plan lays out in broad strokes the goals the state has for all students, the system of accountability, and a proposed set of supports for educators, schools, and districts to help reach those goals. While the plan’s goal of reducing testing time has received much attention, there are additional details in the plan that deserve scrutiny.

Starting with the supports that the plan lays out (in Sections 5 and 6), A+ Schools and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh think there are many goals and initiatives that are praiseworthy, including and especially plans to support the growth and effectiveness of principals.

The Commonwealth also should be lauded for its commitment to cutting existing gaps between all students succeeding and where students are today in half by 2030. That said, according to the data, it would take 20-plus years to close achievement gaps and get 80 percent of all student sub-groups to proficiency. 

Under ESSA, the state accountability system must identify the bottom 5 percent of schools based on academic achievement, academic growth, English Learner progress and the Graduation Rate, and any additional state-identified indicators that are related to student college and career success. Pennsylvania has chosen a career readiness benchmark and chronic absenteeism as additional factors. Additionally, ESSA requires that by the 2019-2020 school year, the state will have identified all schools with subgroups of students that are chronically underperforming. In a big change from No Child Left Behind requirements, many more schools will be identified as needing improvement since we know that even so called “ good schools” in the state are not currently getting all students, especially Black and Latino students, to reach their potential.

And thanks to the new ESSA plan, we will know more about how certain subgroups of students are doing than before. The new Future Ready Index state website will get rid of the “supergroup” of historically disadvantaged students and instead provide data by ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups at a group size of 20. We would encourage the Commonwealth to go even further and report out subgroups at a size of 10 to ensure that advocates and families can know how schools are doing by their children and avoid excluding thousands of children from the state accountability system. Additionally, we hope that the state will provide support to local communities to understand the dashboard they are creating and how to use it to choose schools.

Where the plan could use significant improvement is in the area of explaining how the state will transform schools that are failing students. What constitutes progress such that a school will be able to exit from statutory oversight is vague. The bottom 5 percent cutoff for additional support and oversight by the state is so low that thousands of children in schools right above that cutoff will not get the attention they deserve even though their schools are clearly failing them as well and it is not clear what types of supports those schools might receive to improve in the plan. We would recommend that the state look to the turnaround models that have a track record of success, such as Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. The research on the significant improvements that were made in these locations should serve as a roadmap for what Pennsylvania should be doing to improve outcomes for Black and Latino students.

Please take a moment to read and comment on the draft ESSA Consolidated State Plan by August 31 at: http://www.education.pa.gov/K-12/ESSA/Pages/Review-the-Proposed-Plan.aspx. Schools in our Commonwealth need our support to improve, and ESSA empowers all of us to be more involved in that process.

Esther L. Bush is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. James Fogarty is the Executive Director of A+ Schools.